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Review: Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, by Margarette Lincoln. 

What is the opposite of a spoiler, I wonder? Some six months late, I am able to announce our Book of the Year for 2018. It is this one.  I had already established this at the time but felt a bit daft to broadcast the fact having failed to publish a review. I have therefore now read it twice – no hardship, I can assure you.

This book describes the unsung heroes, heroines – and villains too – who rarely felt the bite of salt water whip across their cheek, but nonetheless played a vital role in keeping Britain’s fleets afloat in the vital period when this country gained hegemony of the oceans.

As the title suggests, this era is characterised by almost constant warfare by both land and sea, but particularly the latter. Great Britain’s only significant reverse was the loss of the American colonies while enjoying great gains in the sub-continent and further afield. War ran in parallel with massive gains in exploration and trade. The end of our period, covered in the final chapter, sees the arrival of steam and the construction of London’s first deep water docks, changing fundamentally East London’s relationship with large shipping until the arrival of containerisation in the 1980s ended it forever.

Trading in War puts the spotlight on the maritime parishes of London, upriver of the City: Wapping, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Deptford, Greenwich. These communities built, maintained, provisioned and indeed broke up the ships of both the Royal Navy, mainly stationed in Deptford, and the nation’s merchant fleet (increasingly dominated at this time by the East India Company).

The conditions and well-being of these communities, as the author demonstrates, were affected to a huge extent by war, hence the title. The two main wars in our period were, of course, war against the American colonies and various wars against France after the Revolution to 1815. Through the chapters, the author closely examines the lives of all strata of maritime society on the Thames, men and women, rich and poor. These societies were by definition, largely artisnal: shipwrights, carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, caulkers and so on.

The busiest shipyards in the biggest port in the world offered a myriad opportunity for all. Wealth for the owners; employment for the local populace; and rich pickings for smugglers, pilferers and fences, particularly on high-duty goods. Stakes were high and criminals bold: customs men often met with extreme violence and even death. The author has used the wonderful Old Bailey Online to shed light on this criminality. It is interesting to note that women played a significant part.

Indeed, Margarette Lincoln has taken particular care to address the lives of women in these districts. A huge number, as you might expect in maritime communities, had to cope without their husbands. But it wasn’t just sailors’ wives. Many were widows, whose knowledge of their late  husbands’ work enabled them to keep family businesses not only running, but thriving. The Navy Board, in particular, increasingly recognised the inherent value of these women and wisely let them get on with it. But also, there was a supporting community spirit and, in at least one case, even from a rival shipyard. The imperative to churn out ships in time of constant national emergency was paramount.

I’m sure, like me, you will enjoy in particular, the pen-portraits of various individuals in this story. Benjamin Slade, the Navy Board’s purveyor in Deptford. His job was to procure every piece of material that went into a ship, from the anchor to the topsail. The best quality for the best cost he had to do a balancing act between shipwright and Navy. Mary and Elizabeth Slade, spinster sisters who ran a habidashery business in Deptford and lived to a great age. Some of their properties have survived to this day. Betsy Bligh, the wife of the famous sea captain, whose sensible management of his affairs at home underpinned his success such as it was and hedged against his tribulations. Her efforts at last remembered here. Frances Barnard, widow of the shipbuilder William Barnard. Following his death in 1795, she continued to run his business just as he had done: for the Navy Board, seamless continuity was the first priority.

I can but scratch the surface here. The author explores many other important areas: the rise of organised labour and the use of strike action, in effect proto-trade unionism; theatres, boxing and other entertainment in the maritime communities, including debating societies (the Government wasn’t keen!).

Then there are the interesting snippets. Did you know? Many ships were 499 tons or less to avoid the obligation by law of carrying a surgeon and priest; an average East Indiaman was only good for up to four voyages before being scrapped (this surprised me) – copper bottoming could extend a ship’s life by 50%; a ship’s owner or manager was known as its ‘husband’; a large ship would typically take three to four years to build. There is much more.

This book paints a detailed and very human picture of London’s maritime communities over a couple of generations at a time when Great Britain became the dominating world power. In sprite of the nation’s success and growing wealth and self-confidence, it highlights, in particular, the hard and precarious existence of all levels of society in the maritime parishes. It is a beautifully well-rounded work of history and deservedly our Book of the Year for 2018. I trust that is some compensation for not scooping the Woolfson Prize a few weeks ago!

 


Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson (292pp), by Margarette Lincoln, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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It seems obvious now you mention it, but it took someone to notice and then do something about it: Hogarth’s pictures are often very noisy. Whether outdoors or in, his compositions variously feature musicians, crying babies, street criers, yapping dogs, yowling cats, noisy children, yelling crowds and sometimes all of the above. Cacophony. This new exhibition at the Foundling Museum is called Hogarth & The Art of Noise.

Anyone who knows a little Hogarth if prompted about noise, will of course cite The Enraged Musician (1741), for many, his most amusing piece.

The Enraged Musician 1741 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

The curators claim 19 sources of racket in this image. I only managed to pick out 14. How about you? Here’s a bigger version.

But the centrepiece of this exhibition, the painting from which all else in the show is derived, is the museum’s own Hogarth masterpiece: The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750). It is Hogarth at his most opinionated, prejudiced and spiky. In short, at his best. It depicts the then fairly new Guards regiments in their mitre style headgear carousing in Tottenham Court prior to marching off to quell the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Many of the noisy elements from The Enraged Musician are present – e.g. yowling rooftop cats: Hogarth was never shy of recycling a good visual joke. The point of the picture is to contrast the virility and virtue of Hanoverian Protestant Britain on the left with the weak, immoral and Catholic late Stuarts on the right.

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Larger version of this painting here.

Elsewhere in this quite small exhibition we have other examples from many of Hogarth’s work and noise, e.g. The Laughing Audience, alongside comparisons with his near contemporaries. To add further context, you can also listen via headphones to readings from Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and others.

William Hogarth and the Founding Museum are inextricably connected. He was a founding Governor of Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital (1739)  for (mainly) illegitimate babies. Along with GF Handel and others, he did pro bono work for the hospital, such as designing its logo, as well as participating in fund-raising art exhibitions along with contemporary artists. He and his wife Jane – childless themselves – also occasionally fostered children from the hospital at their home in Chiswick.

This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition. It’s further reassuring to see one of its consultants was Elizabeth Einberg, author of  the most scholarly book on Hogarth’s work ever produced. Most of all, though, it presents the opportunity to examine a Hogarth masterpiece completely unhindered by glass, distance or crowds. Don’t miss it!


Hogarth and the Art of Noise runs at the Foundling Museum until 1 September 2019.

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Guest post by LH member Mike Rendell. This article was first published in our Members’ Newsletter from February 2015.

In 1775 my ancestor went to Leicester Square to see an exhibition of natural curiosities at a museum recently opened by Ashton Lever. He wrote “Went with Wife, Daughter and Son Francis to see Sir Ashton Lever’s Collection of Natural Curiositiers, and curious they indeed are. Din’d at a beefstake house.”

Lever, who went on to be knighted by George III, had been a remarkable magpie of a collector of everything from stuffed birds, historical artefacts, fossils, shells and other natural history items. For a number of years in the early 1770’s he had exhibited them to casual callers at his home at Alkrington House near Manchester. He was used to getting more than 1000 visitors in a single year, scrambling to inspect his vast collection which filled over 1300 glass display cabinets. Running an open house with that number of visitors cannot have been easy. He hit on the idea of bringing the collection to a wider audience – and that meant opening a museum in London. He chose Leicester House, and took a lease of the premises in 1774. He then spent time and a considerable amount of money, in adapting it as a suite of display rooms, twelve in all, leading off a staircase in one long gallery. Walls were knocked down, doorways opened into wide archways, so that visitors could walk through from one room to the next without hindrance, looking at the 24,000 exhibits, mostly displayed in glass cabinets.

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View of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, 1785.

He opened to the public in February 1775, giving it the name ‘Holophusicon’ (a made-up word from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’ and ‘phusikon’ meaning ‘of nature’). It must have been an extraordinary sight, with stuffed animals such as elephants and monkeys, alongside fossils and shells, stuffed birds, and Oliver Cromwell’s armour. Captain James Cook was apparently an admirer of the erudite Sir Ashton, and gave him a considerable amount of material brought back from his first and second voyages. This helped fuel a mania for Oceania – the public were enthralled at the display of artefacts from Tahiti etc, all displayed in a special Otaheite Room. After Cook died on his third voyage, further items were purchased for display in a Sandwich Islands Room, with weapons such as clubs and spears, ceremonial robes, paddles, utensils and so on.

The public were required to pay a fee – either by taking out an annual membership at a cost of two guineas, or by paying a single entrance fee of a quarter of a guinea (5/3d). Sir Ashton was forced to reduce this to half a crown (2/6d) because of falling visitor numbers. Poor Sir Ashton, he spent more and more money on his exhibits until the obsession got quite out of hand – the exhibits were independently valued at over £50,000. Facing bankruptcy, Sir Ashton wanted to sell the collection to the British Museum, which had opened thirty years earlier, but the trustees declined. It was also offered to the Empress Catherine II of Russia but she too turned down the chance to acquire the display as a single collection. Following the example of the jeweller James Cox, who had tried to sell his exhibition of automata by private lottery, in 1784 Sir Ashton applied to Parliament for permission to “dispose of the contents of his Museum, as now exhibited at Leicester House, by Way of Chance.”

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Sir Ashton Lever.

Parliament approved the scheme but only eight thousand tickets were sold, at a guinea each, out of a planned figure of 36,000. It was a pretty poor return for a man who had laid out thousands of pounds over many years. The lottery prize was drawn in March 1786 and went to a Law Stationer called James Parkinson, who got some 26,600 exhibits including over 1850 ethnographic items from the Pacific. After a year at Leicester House, where the entrance fee was dropped to one shilling a head, Parkinson decided to relocate the collection to the Rotunda in Albion Street, on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. He dropped the name ‘Holophusicon’ and called it the Leverian Museum. By then Sir Ashton had died, and had nothing further to do with the museum which bore his name. For twenty years the exhibition continued to amuse and amaze the public at 3 Blackfriars Road, but in declining numbers. In 1806 the decision was made to sell the entire collection by auction. Once again the British Museum declined to have anything to do with it, and instead this remarkable collection was spread to all corners of the globe, furnishing many important museums with the cornerstone of important collections. These include Museums in Vienna, Honolulu, Berlin, Wellington and Sydney. The auction lasted a full 65 days, with the collection divided into 7879 lots. It raised a mere £ 6,642 13s 6d. For anyone wanting more information about the collection and the way it was divided up, have a look at Adrienne L. Kaeppler’s book Holophusicon, the Leverian Museum which came out in 2011. She is Curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and she has put together a remarkable detective work in establishing ‘what went where’.

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A guest post by LH Member Julian Woodford.
Review: Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry.

orphans of empireThe spirit of William Hogarth runs vividly through Orphans of Empire, Professor Helen Berry’s latest book, which explores the story of what happened to the orphaned or abandoned children of London’s Foundling Hospital. Before reading it, I knew that the hospital was the brainchild of the shipwright, sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram. I knew too from Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Hogarth that the artist had been Coram’s friend and an enthusiastic and active patron of the hospital. But I hadn’t realised just how firmly the Foundling Hospital story was seated in Hogarthian London until I read Berry’s fascinating account, which draws heavily on Hogarth’s work for its illustrations and for two of its principal chapter headings.

I am somewhat red-faced to admit that I had never managed to visit the Foundling Museum, tucked in the north-east corner of Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Square, next door to Virginia Woolf’s former residence and adjacent to the former site of Coram’s hospital. So it was a treat to follow Helen Berry’s directions, taking the road less travelled by the throngs of British Museum or Covent Garden-bound tourists leaving the Underground at Russell Square and instead heading, via Brunswick Square and its giant plane tree, to Coram’s Fields. The Foundling Museum, with its poignant collection of foundling tokens and its impressive recreation of the hospital’s Court Room, (not to mention several stunning Hogarth originals, including Thomas Coram’s lifesize portrait and ‘The March to Finchley’) is a humbling yet hugely rewarding experience, but I can state wholeheartedly that its enjoyment is magnified several-fold by the contemporaneous reading of Professor Berry’s book.

Berry’s account interweaves two themes. She is not the first historian to articulate the broad general history of Thomas Coram and his Foundling Hospital in the context of the eighteenth-century charitable movement among London’s governing elite. But she has broken new ground in exploring the rich seam of the Foundling Hospital archive (seventeen double-decker buses-worth of shelving, as Berry points out). This has enabled her to supplement the institutional story with snippets from the remarkable diary of George King, a foundling who went on to experience life as an apprentice in the City of London before running away to sea, fighting at Trafalgar and teaching in South Carolina before ending his days as he had begun them, institutionalised in London as a Naval Pensioner and as clerk to the Greenwich Hospital. As Berry touchingly puts it, the ‘single precious thread’ of King’s diary, punctuated by the ‘smaller broken whispers’ of other former foundlings, has allowed her to illuminate how Britain’s imperial progress shaped the fates of some of the poorest in society.

Orphans of Empire’s many highlights include Berry’s moving and vivid description of the grief of young mothers as they handed over their new-born babies to the hospital, almost certainly never to see them again. Throughout the book, Berry knits together a most interesting recap of the persistent central role played by the orphan/foundling in myth and literature, from Moses to Romulus and Remus, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Her statistical analysis hammers home the sheer scale of failure of eighteenth-century society and parochial government to provide social support for children. Survivors like George King were lucky: two-thirds of the almost 15,000 children admitted to the hospital between 1756-1760 died while in its care, a mortality rate that sometimes rose to as high as 90%. And I was intrigued to learn that several of the hospital’s main benefactors, including Thomas Coram and Hogarth themselves, along with Georg Friedrich Handel, were each themselves childless and that this lack may have been a driving force of their philanthropy.

My only disappointment in this otherwise excellent book is some careless editing. I became confused by the interchangeable use of the terms ‘General Reception’ and ‘General Admission’ (compounded by distinct index entries) to describe the failed experiment in 1756-1760 when parliamentary funding led to the hospital becoming a national, rather than just a London-based, concern and which led to an explosion in demand that almost overwhelmed the institution’s ability to cope. In a similar vein, the statistical analysis of admission numbers and mortality could have been presented more coherently in a single place instead of being scattered throughout, with some resulting unnoticed editorial duplication (pages 58, 97).

This small gripe is not enough to spoil an enlightening account of one of the peripheral but important byways of Britain’s imperial history. Helen Berry’s use of detailed archival research to amplify and vivify the tale of a famous London institution is instructive and exemplary. Orphans of Empire is a super book, nicely produced, with good black & white illustrations, clear endnotes and indexing, and I recommend it to all London Historians.

Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings. By HELEN BERRY. pp. xv + 364 + 20 illustrations within text, indexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. £20.00, but available for less. ISBN 978-0-19-875848-8. Hardback. Published 11 April.

This book is London Historians members’ book competition for March 2019.


The Foundling Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, admission £10 for adults.


Julian Woodford is a historian and author of The Boss of Bethnal Green, Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London. @HistoryLondon

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A guest post by LH Member Val Bott, @BottValbott.

Review: The Hidden Horticulturists by Fiona Davison.

hidden Horticulturists coverWhen the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Garden closed in 1904, greenhouses, fixtures and fittings and plants were moved to Wisley. Amongst the items taken from Chiswick was a modest volume labelled The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers. Soon after she became Librarian at the Lindley Library, Fiona Davison came across this in the stores there; its record of 105 young men who had been selected as trainees in the Chiswick Garden in a six year period starting in 1822 set her off on a significant piece of research.

The Society began offering training to raise horticultural standards nationally and the young trainees had succeeded in a very competitive selection process. Each wrote in the book in his own hand a short CV, all covering similar ground; often they were the sons of gardeners or had worked on estate gardens, sometimes both. Each recorded his horticultural experience, the name of the person who had recommended him (usually a Fellow of the Society). This demonstrated his literacy and the fact that he fulfilled the eligibility criteria for admission. Most were young men from England and Scotland but a few came from abroad.

Using this apparently modest and limited source Fiona Davison has traced the life stories of 32 of the apprentices to introduce to her readers. Using the clues offered by the entries in the Handwriting Book, she has asked many questions of the sources. While one was the famous Joseph Paxton, much less was known about others and some had rather lowly lives in comparison. From my own research into 18th century gardeners I am aware how difficult it can be to trace the lives of such individuals and, while she had the advantage of additional sources, like the Census and local newspapers in the 19th century, I can see how hard the author has persisted with her inquiries over three years of spare time research to bring us this book!

She has grouped them according to types of experience, from “The Horticultural Elite”, through the “Deserving Men” lower down the horticultural ladder and “Fruit Experts”, to “Criminals in the Garden”. She writes sensitively and almost affectionately about the young men’s experiences at the Chiswick Garden, describes their successes and failures, traces their future careers, as gardeners on large estates, as plant hunters on the other side of the world or as nursery gardeners some of whom had little business acumen.

Many of the trainees went on to have the kind of lives which would not ordinarily have attracted a biographer, though others left their mark on significant gardens which have survived. Nevertheless the narrative is surprisingly rich because it provides the context offered by their family histories and their horticultural activities in a variety of locations in the UK and abroad. Correspondence and press reports show the difficulties encountered by men who went to Egypt, Ceylon, Australia and South America; some were caught up in difficulties in far-flung colonies or became ill in hostile climates.

The records of the Old Bailey reveal the foolishness of young men caught out selling stolen seeds. But she found in the archives evidence of Joseph Sabine’s poor management of the Chiswick Garden and his failure to spot embezzlement by a protegé which led to serious financial difficulties for the Horticultural Society. So stealing seeds may have been an act of desperation for the men involved, when the Society cut labourers’ wages from 14 to 12 shillings a week and the pay of the under-gardeners from 18 to 14 shillings weekly.

This makes for a thoroughly readable book full of good stories about real people; its glimpses of 19th century history will have a wider a wider appeal than pure garden history. Though attractively designed with rich colour plates, its only shortcoming is the fact that a few of the black and white images in the text are rather grey. However, I am already thinking of the friends for whom it will make an excellent gift!

An RHS exhibition about the Hidden Horticulturists at the Lindley Library runs until 6 May.


The Hidden Horticulturists, Fiona Davison, Atlantic Books/Royal Horticultural Society
published 4 April 2019, £25.00 cover price.


Val Bott. Some of Val Bott ‘s research on gardening history can be seen on nurserygardeners.com. She is the Editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal.

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This guest post by Gareth Edwards was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of January 2015.

A longer version of this article, with more images, is here.

Look around Endell Street today and you could be forgiven for thinking it just an average London street. But one hundred years ago it was home to an important, and now near-forgotten, part of British history – the Endell Street Military Hospital, the first British Army hospital officially staffed, and managed, entirely by women.

That the hospital existed at all was largely thanks to the efforts of two remarkable women – Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. Both women had trained at the London School of Medicine for Women. They became firm friends and founded the Women’s Hospital for Children together on Harrow Road in 1912. Both were also heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement – not surprising, given their own experiences at the hands of the misogynistic British medical establishment.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 the pair wanted to serve in a medical capacity, but realised that any direct approach to the War Office would likely end in them being dismissed out of hand. Casting about, they soon discovered that the French Army were desperate for medical staff so approached the French Red Cross with the offer of equipping and staffing a hospital. The French quickly accepted.

Within just two weeks the Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) had begun to take shape. Within three Murray, Garett Anderson and their new organisation were boarding a train for the continent. The 80 year old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Louisa’s mother and the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon – watched on from the platform.

“Are you not proud, Mrs Anderson?” A friend asked.

“Yes.” She answered. “Twenty years younger I would have taken them myself.”

Their first hospital, established in the disused Hotel Claridge in Paris and known to everyone as “Claridges” was soon taking wounded soldiers and quickly established a reputation as one of the foremost military hospitals in Paris. This was in no small part thanks to Murray and Garrett Anderson’s deft handling of the many military and civilian visitors the hospital attracted. A succession of critical Generals and administrators passed through Claridges and each received a comprehensive tour, their questions patiently answered, however insulting. More often than not they left with a higher opinion of the WHC than when they arrived.

In November as fighting worsened, Murray and Garrett Anderson journeyed to Boulogne to meet a hard-pressed Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Medical Service who had previously visited Claridges and been impressed. If they moved the WHC nearer the front, they asked him, would he use them?

“Yes.” He replied. “To the fullest extent.”

Acknowledgement of their services at the front did not automatically translate to recognition with the War Office back home, however. The new hospital at Wimereux soon built up its own impressive reputation though and the ability of the WHC to run an effective military hospital became increasingly impossible to ignore.

Finally, in February 1915 Murray and Garrett Anderson were invited to London to meet Sir Alfred Keogh, Director General of Army Medical Services. In Keogh they found an unexpected ally. He had read the reports on the WHC coming from those in the field in France and he offered them the chance to make history – he asked them to establish an RAMC military hospital of at least 500 beds at Endell Street in London, staffed solely by women. They agreed and on the 18th February Keogh publicly praised the two doctors and announced the plans to the press.

“He had asked them to take charge of a hospital of 500 beds.” The Times reported with some astonishment the next day. “And if they pleased, of a hospital with 1,000 beds.”

Setting up the hospital at Endell Street was a whole new challenge for the women of the WHC as much of the British army medical establishment was still actively hostile to their efforts. The location chosen for the hospital was an old work house and getting it ready required significant work. Somehow, with little assistance from the rest of the RAMC, they had the hospital ready in time for its opening.

The general expectation amongst those opposed to their work was that the Endell Street experiment would fail within 6 months. Under Murray’s capable supervision and thanks to the efforts of all of its staff it instead quickly became one of the foremost military hospitals in London. With this the hostility gradually began to decrease, replaced with a sort of lukewarm tolerance and gentle neglect.

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Francis Dodd, chalk drawing, 1917. Image: Wellcome Images.

Indeed over time the staff would turn this situation to something of an advantage as it allowed them to ignore certain standard British Army practices in favour of new ideas. Murray believed psychological wellbeing was as important as physical when it came to recovery and wards were bright with many activities laid on for the men. Garrett Anderson meanwhile, along with a brilliant pathologist called Helen Chambers, was able to carry out extensive clinical research. Together they trialled, then deployed, a new compound “Bipp” paste that dramatically reduced the frequency with which surgical dressings needed to be changed.

The quality of care delivered at Endell Street and the development of Bipp paste made their achievements impossible to ignore. In January 1917 Queen Alexandra visited. Later that year both Murray and Garrett Anderson were awarded the CBE for their war work.

“I knew you could do it.” Keogh confided to Garrett Anderson towards the war’s end. “We were watched, but you have silenced all critics.”

By that time the war ended their success was indeed there for all to see. When Parliament granted the first limited voting rights to women in 1918, Murray ordered their only ever overt political act – a suffragist flag was hoisted in the hospital courtyard, to the cheers of staff and patients alike.

Endell Street Military Hospital finally closed in 1919. To say that it changed things instantly would be an overstatement but, thanks to efforts of those who worked there, it represented a huge step in the right direction. Some of the women at Endell Street moved on to great things. One of the younger members of staff there, Hazel Cuthbert, became the first female physician appointed at the Royal Free. Many more however still found their careers limited by prejudice – despite performing over 7000 operations, for example, none of the female surgeons from Endell Street would perform major surgery again.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson meanwhile returned together to the small children’s hospital they had founded on the Harrow Road. Both remained active in politics until the ends of their lives. Neither woman ever married, and they are buried together near the home they shared in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The inscription on their shared tombstone reads “We have been gloriously happy.”

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Memorial Plaque. Image courtesy London Remembers.com.

On Endell Street itself, little evidence of their achievement remains. The old building that contained the hospital is long gone – replaced by Dudley Court, a red brick housing block. Look around a bit though and you’ll find a blue plaque marking the spot where it stood. It is worth hunting out – a few words to commemorate some awfully mighty deeds.


London Reconnections.
Wellcome Images.
.

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A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon. 

Review: The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science by Adrian Tinniswood.

royal society_I possess another book about the Royal Society (RS) but it is a bit of a doorstop and more of a collection of essays. I have been surprised not to find before this moment a clear and straightforward book on its history because even my most unscientific of London Historians friends would probably put the Royal Society or, to give it its full title, the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge on a pedestal with the label: National Treasure. Why? – because, well… Sir Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, innit? Nice to know it’s there. Wonderful heritage, and all that.

Not many of us know why it is still here today. Is the RS a fresh flower or a crumbling fossil in the modern world? Since the late 1700s there have grown up many learned societies devoted to scientific specialisms which supplant the original role of the RS to gather knowledge from experiments and invigorate understanding of the natural world. The RS claims today that it promotes excellence in science. Few of us who are not professional scientists can judge it on this territory. It does stage some public events, outstanding among which is their Summer Science Exhibition held in their modern headquarters and then, beside the new research, you may get to see a few relics on display.

So, Adrian Tinniswood has given us something handy. Books, such as this one, in the Landmark Library series are placed in the market perhaps as a more giftable alternative to the spartan but, in my sampling, excellent Very Short Introduction series (but that series has no equivalent book about the RS). I stage my own unofficial and mildly iconoclastic Royal Society Unofficial Tour and Tinniswood has added some detail and nuance to the knowledge that, without such a book, I have gathered for myself over the years.

Tinniswood is a historian and writer without a previous track record in science history (he has previously tackled Sir Christopher Wren) but that might be an advantage for the general reader. Look what Bill Bryson (RS Fellow), neither an academic historian nor a scientist, did to popularize science with A Short History of Nearly Everything. But historians discussing science, and indeed scientists writing history, are inevitably breaking cover.

We are given some of the RS’ cultural and human back story including Francis Bacon and the ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers, some of whom eventually founded the RS. There is a useful appendix on the founding individuals. I was amused to deduce from this book that despite the emergence of coffee house culture at this time, the early RS perhaps owed more to the beer house. London Historians members who attend its pub meet-ups may take heart.

There is a colourful chapter on experiments, and an appendix including a handful of write-ups of early experiments and curious observations like Robert Boyle’s encounter with a neck of veal which, in the absence of a refrigerator, had become luminously putrid.

One difficulty that the RS presents to our judgement is that because some individual did some good work and was rewarded by election to this club, that might just be a case of the club basking in some reflected glory. Was the RS more than the sum of its gifted fellows? The RS has been attentive to PR in its 360 years, such as when honoring Humphry Davy with a Rumford Medal for his miners’ safety lamp, as if it was some triumph of natural philosophy. George Stephenson, unschooled, less clubbable, came up with something very similar at the same time. In the distant past the RS has had its National Treasure status periodically called into question by detractors as illustrious as Jonathan Swift and Charles Babbage. Happily, Adrian Tinniswood gives us a chapter on those entertaining spats.

What did the institution achieve in its 360 years? The book has a subtitle, ‘The invention of modern science’ which could both focus us on (1) what we now know, but it should also concern itself with (2) the evolution of the process by which we came to know it. The book is compact and, probably wisely, Tinniswood does not attempt to address the first point, and he deals with the second quite briefly, dealing with the publication of the scientific record, Philosophical Transactions, but not really later improvements such as peer review. The RS did much to help to invent the scientific method, a considerable legacy, as it provides our comforts and protects us from snake oil salesmen, if we care to listen. But it took hundreds of years about it. Its first female fellow was only enrolled in 1945.

So, we have a useful, attractive and entertaining book, and not one of those rather dull administrative histories that sometimes emerge from august institutions from the pen of a devoted insider. I would like to have seen more context, comparison and insight. We had our Francis Bacon, but it was Rene Descartes who influenced the course of science on the other side of the channel. Rather than just assume that the RS’s National Treasure status is deserved, we could be told what happened in other countries and in other younger British institutions such as the Royal Institution and the Society of Arts. What role, if any, did the RS play in the industrial revolution? There we have subject matter enough to fill another book.


The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science, 208 pages, by Adrian Tinniswood, is published by Head of Zeus, lavishly illustrated. 

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